Chapter 2 Fifty Years: In Pursuit of Better Tomorrow Ela Madej – Global Women in the Start-up World

CHAPTER 2

Fifty Years

In Pursuit of Better Tomorrow

Ela Madej, the founder of Applicake, Base CRM, and Credictive. ­Partner in the Krakow investment fund Innovation Nest. Co-founder of ­California fund Fifty Years. Longtime supporter of Polish start-up community. Graduate of the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator. With her start-up Credictive, a part of the first Polish team to be accepted to Y C.

She comes from Krakow. She lived on both the East and the West Coast of the United States. Recently she moved back to Silicon Valley.

Ela’s professional journey in brief:

2006—Krakow: Applicake software house

2009—Krakow: start-up Base CRM, Hive53 community, EuRuKo and Railsberry conferences

2012—Silicon Valley: Y Combinator accelerator; start-up Credictive

2014—New York: Innovation Nest fund; start-up Amicus

2015—Silicon Valley: Fifty Years Fund, impact.tech community

Many very clever people create companies just for profit. This doesn’t really solve the most important problems such as unequal access to resources, public health etc. People in the start-up field have incredible intellectual potential. However, the goals they choose are not too sophisticated—interesting from the business point of view but not too smart in from the viewpoint of the rest of humanity. I was troubled by that.

—Ela Madej

I asked Ela to tell me what she was doing today and to develop on the successes and failures of her start-ups, founded over the last 10 years. I also heard from her about start-up ecosystems in New York and Silicon Valley. She gives valuable, mature advice not just to young people but to anyone wondering about choosing their career path and anyone caring about the future of our planet. She considers many aspects of running a start-up. Conversation with her is an intellectual analysis of today’s world largely influenced by Buddhist philosophy.

I met with Ela in San Francisco’s SoMa district (South of Market).

In the 1990s, SoMa underwent an economic transformation connected to the dotcom boom.

Today SoMa is populated by many people from the start-up community, new technologies, IT and host the headquarters of some of the smartest tech companies such as Instacart and Airbnb.

The First Steps

The First Company—Applicake

In 2006, with my friends Paweł Niżnik, Bartek Kiszala, and Agata Mazur we created Applicake—we were creating software in Ruby on Rails technology. I was in my second year of college.

The story began when Paweł went for training to a Stockholm company Edulab where he learned Ruby on Rails technology. After he returned to Poland the Swedes invited him to cooperate. In Krakow, Pawel gathered a group of friends; I was going to help manage the company. I did not see my future in this. I just wanted to help my friends and in a few months go my own way. We decided to have equal shares in the company. It wasn’t always easy, but Applicake began to grow. From the very beginning we worked with start-ups, mostly from abroad.

Naive Attempts

Soon we decided to create something independently. Today I can say our first efforts were naive. We tried to create games and social networks, one of them was a service called tripy.pl. Honestly, we really did not know what we were doing… There was very little chance for those projects to succeed. It does happen that such things like games and social networks sites take off but usually it is just by luck on accident. We didn’t make it but we had a lot of fun!

Base

We decided to start organizing meetings for the programmers of Ruby language and the Rail framework. We also started to organize large conferences. We became recognizable on the European technological stage.

In 2009, we got a letter from Uzi Shmilovici, today’s CEO of Base CRM company. He said he had an interesting idea that he wanted to start and invited us to cooperate. We refused. It was supposed to be work-for-shares and our principle was not to take on such projects: many start-ups use such strategy to avoid financial risk. It is a difficult business model for software houses.

Uzi was insistent—finally he convinced us and we began to work together. This was the beginning of Base CRM which is doing the best of all the companies I had been involved in. (Nota Bene without me!) In time Base CRM took over Applicake. Today it employs 170 people. It is based in Mountain View in Silicon Valley, an office in San Francisco and a strong programming team in Krakow. They are doing great.

So those were our beginnings.

Hive53

Applicake was bootstrapped, so created with our own money and developed from the profits. Our next projects were also financed from the cash flow.

Start-ups were our clients a few years ago, when people didn’t really know what a start-up was. That’s why Piotrek Nędzyński and I created Hive53 start-up community. Now it is being run by the next generation of entrepreneurs, which makes me very happy.

For the Love of Kracow…

I love Krakow; I was born there, I grew up there and went to school, this is where I have many friends, my family lives there. This is a kind of feeling you have for your own child. I like the rhythm of life in Krakow—much less stressful than the United States. I like the atmosphere of the city, the art scene—theaters, indie cinemas. I like Cracovian slow foods and crossing the town square on my bike. I moved out of Krakow a while ago but I always love to go back.

Krakow attracts and educates many clever and technically savvy programmers. In the Krakow start-up ecosystem we have more and more local successes that become global successes, such as Base CRM, Estimote, Seedlabs, Brainly. There are several investment funds located in Krakow, such as Innovation Nest. Of course you cannot compare it to the IT in Silicon Valley but Krakow does have a few global companies. We are cheering for the next ones.

Y Combinator

Credictive

We got into Y Combinator as the first company from Poland with the idea for Credictive. Generally it was “all great” but many things we could have been done better. We wanted to accelerate a product, which required more time and product-market-fit research. For me, as a CEO, everything was too crazy and stressful. Inside the team there was also pressure to focus on just one thing. Just before Demo Day I finally decided to call off the funding round that was already on the way, although we had interest from investors such as Andreessen Horowitz.

Why the Investors Liked Us?

The founders of Y Combinator did not like Credictive, they cared more about our great team and maybe my personal “charisma” played a small part. Paul Graham seemed to like me, although it might be too warm a word for it. From the very beginning they wanted us to work on something else. It was a kind of anti-support.

Andreessen Horowitz, on the other hand, liked Credictive, as we were trying to create a tool for meta tagging Internet items for their attribution, meaning the people who contributed to the creation of certain content. You might compare our product to movie credits. We talked to Creative Commons and people from Wikipedia, among others.

I think the time for Credictive type product is still in the future but someone has to do it without pressure. After this episode we decided to put all our energy to Base CRM.

Too Early

Many start-ups got accepted to our edition, including our Credictive, that should never have gone there. We got there too early. I had no way of knowing that but people from YC should have foreseen it. We were only just finishing a product and after the accelerator we were supposed to be ready for financing. That was a bit crazy.

Most founders who try to get into YC observe YC and Paul Graham for many months or even years. Myself, I never felt that YC was such a special place. When I learned about it I thought it was worth trying because the accelerator offers good financial terms and we wanted to develop our product and “learn” Silicon Valley.

Accelerator Is an Investment Fund

At that stage I was not aware that Y Combinator was an accelerator, not an incubator. An accelerator for its three month program tries to maximally speed up start-ups of a given batch, regardless of the level of their development. If a team does not yet have a specific vision of their product there is a chance that such accelerated “development” might be too rapid. Accelerator is an investment fund that aims at quickly developing companies it takes on. Even if only a few of those companies will stay on the market and only 5 percent of them will grow into robust corporations, mathematically speaking this business model makes sense. In reality, the sooner the remaining companies collapse the better, as they don’t need to to be taken care of anymore.

Y Combinator—My Experience

Looking back I think that being in Y Combinator was a positive experience. I maintain many connections that started there. I think I understood better how Silicon Valley works—unlike what most people imagine it’s less about the hype, more about hard business.

Thanks to participating in YC I became clear about how I would like to work in my future. My previous work routine, although developed over six years, did not work at YC. I think the work style in Silicon Valley is not always “healthy.”

This year 7,000 start-ups applied to Y Combinator. The majority are well-established companies making some profit. About a 100 gets accepted into the program.

“Island Under the Rainbow”

For people in the start-up field going through an accelerator is like getting an MBA. In YC I learned about how the ecosystem of start-ups and investors really work. That knowledge turned out to be quite valuable for me. Without it I would not be able to do what I do now. Before getting into YC I lived in an idealized world, a bit on an “island under the rainbow.” That’s why the new, pragmatic approach to reality was for sure helpful.

New York vs. Silicon Valley

Escape from Silicon Valley

When we finished the YC program I left Silicon Valley. I didn’t want to be here, I did not feel at home in the strictly techy environment, after getting my ass kicked at YC. In Silicon Valley most conversations deal with start-ups and technology. I had a feeling the human element was overlooked. Maybe we, Europeans, especially those from Eastern Europe have a great need for communities, not necessarily goal oriented.

In Krakow I was busy co-organizing the Railsberry conference. At that time Applicake was finally taken over by Base CRM.

New York

In later years my life took me to New York where the start-up scene is also very interesting. During my stay there I decided—partly for personal reasons—to do something different, although I did not know exactly what it would be. I decided that having worked really hard for last seven years I deserved a longer holidays—a sabbatical. I decided to give some thought to what I should do and would like to do. I needed a break. With my friend Socha we left for two months for Argentina and after returning to the United States I signed up for a three—month course of modern dance at a Broadway school. Finally I decided to stay in New York.

New York Technology Scene

It is relatively easy to get to know the New York ­start-up-technology environment. Every month there is a NYTech Meetup—an event bringing together people from most technology fields. This is where you can start getting to know the New York IT environment. There are also two renowned and influential newsletters: Charlie O’Donnell’s and Gary Sharmy’s.

Industries of New York

New York is not such as homogenous place as Silicon Valley. There are some coexisting fintech ecosystems (financial technology), practically the whole financial technology industry with their own meet-ups and ­conferences. The industry is pretty much all financed by Wall Street investors who watch closely the trends of technological-financial innovation. There is also adtech (advertisement and technology), e-commerce, and biotech. Quite large publishing and fashion industries are also located in New York. Most of those industries—except for maybe some branches of biotech—is, for my taste, too much focused on generating profit.

I spent a few difficult months looking for a place for myself and decided I still have to look further.

Multicultural City

For a Polish start-up it is easier to begin in New York. First, the time difference is only six hours, not nine, compared to Silicon Valley. It means that if you have teams in both the United States and Poland communication is easier. Besides, New York is not as expensive as Silicon Valley and is much more culturally diverse. It is probably also easier to find employees in New York—it has more people from a variety of industries. New York start-up ecosystem is also very mature—second in the world, just after Silicon Valley. Brainly, Estimote, and some other Polish start-ups already have their offices in NYC.

Finally, although no more of critical importance, New York has a large Polish diaspora. So if we crave barszcz or pierogi we can go to Greenpoint, the traditional Polish neighborhood which is now transforming into a cool, hipster zone. It is worth visiting.

Hip vs. Stylish

Compared to Silicon Valley New York is more worldly and European, which can be felt also in the start-up community.

New York start-ups sometimes resemble large, genuine business run by young people. At fintech meetings in San Francisco we will not meet men in white shirts. In New York people in the financial or advertising business wear business suit and sometimes overdress. Designer shoes, expensive clothes are in. This is not exactly my world.

In San Francisco and especially in Silicon Valley people are more at ease. Practically no one dresses up; the key is comfort. This works for me.

The Culture of Activity

New York is a vast city with distances between some neighborhoods similar to those between Katowice and Krakow. Living in New York you have to schedule every meeting in advance since a simple visit at friends at the other end of the city means a long trip.

San Francisco is smaller and more community minded. Wonderful weather and the location in proximity of national parks, beaches, and mountains encourage weekend trips to the country. People go to the vineyards in Napa Valley. Generally they spend more time together, off work. Active outdoor lifestyle is a large part of the culture of San Francisco.

New YorkNew Challenges

More Than Just Work…

I spent less than a year in New York. I contacted all the entrepreneurs and investors that I knew and asked them for “intros” for their social networks. There was a month when I had five, six meetings a day. It was very exhausting but I learned a lot. I did not know yet my game plan but I wanted to meet and talk. I got to know many interesting companies and some of them I was even able to help. I knew I was neither interested in the role of co-founder in a new start-up nor in being an analyst in a larger fund. I wondered what could I do so that my everyday activity would not be just work. I was always drawn to science and real innovation. I made a list of science—technology start-ups active in New York and I met with their founders. Simultaneously I was in advanced talks with an interesting educational start-up and was considering joining them as a VP of Sales. I also had an offer to join a large start-up Trello, also in VP position. I also got another great offer but I am not supposed to talk about it. Those were offers of senior roles in well-developed companies. At the end of the day I decided not to join an unknown team. I also did not want to be just an employee. Maybe it is my elevated ego speaking but I knew it would be hard for me to assimilate in that role. I was concerned someone would limit my creativity.

Innovation Nest Fund

At that time I started talking with Piotr Wilam, who encouraged me to join the Innovation Nest Fund. The Fund already had a presence in the United States but Piotr wanted to expand the scope of its activity. I, on the other hand, was more interested in working with people. Innovation Nest team is based in Krakow, which meant I would be working in the States all by myself. Eventually we worked out an arrangement, which enabled me to spend a few months a year in Krakow. An interesting ­window into learning the nuts and bolts of the investment world opened up for me.

We worked together for a few months and it was a great experience. I really appreciate what Piotr, Marek, and Marcin are doing.

Amicus

In the meantime I noticed that in start-up Amicus, funded by my partner Seth Bannon, they needed a managerial help. Amicus is a social good start-up creating software for large nonprofit organizations. I wondered if I should step in and help them… Finally I joined Amicus part time as a Chief Operating Officer while continuing to work for Innovation Nest. This was the beginning of yet another (sic!) “most intensive time in my life.” And since I took up that challenge I wanted to carry through. That’s probably why I quickly lost heart for New York. The months I spend in the city were among the hardest in my life, considering the level of stress and responsibility.

Seth tried twice to fire me to give me some respite. I did not let him.

From the Investor Viewpoint

Grand Scheme of Things

At the same time I was ready to make another decision, this time involving my position as an investor. I like working with start-ups; investing in young companies is very interesting. Yet as an investor I held an uncomfortable position—I thought that start-ups were redundant. Many very smart people create companies just for profit and later struggle with it. Maybe because they seemingly “change the world” but in fact they don’t solve any serious problems such as suffering, hunger, or unfair access to resources. People involved in the start-up industry have enormous intellectual capital, yet the goals they set for themselves are mediocre—interesting from the business point of view but mundane in the grand scheme of things. I began to worry about it.

A Story for an Investor

Start-ups are an uncertain venture. That’s why VC financing for companies at the very early stage of their development is a relatively new model in Poland. Not only because there was a long break in capitalism in Poland. Traditionally companies look for investors only when they already have started turning a profit and want to expand, or when they have no profit but they can somehow predict it. Start-ups on the other hand are companies with great potential but by definition still searching for their business model. Today many companies, following Silicon Valley example look for an investor when all they have is a crazy idea.

Start-ups particularly those in Silicon Valley created a complex ecosystem. Part of it is the network of investors ready to support the creativity of people who devoted many years of their lives to something very uncertain in order to create something new. And they need a lot of capital for it.

Often we create a whole selling story for the benefit of investors, where we describe out team, our vision and explaining why we are likely to be successful. This story is essential especially when the company is in the early stage. To tell people that we will make it we have to believe it ourselves. We persuade ourselves and others that that particular project represents our life mission. It must be so since we devote 10 years of our life to it being aware that there is an over 90 percent chance it will fail. This is very tough on the psyche, especially for young people. I have a big problem with that. I think someone’s life mission can be finding a cure for cancer but creating a better website that will retarget users to another websites to buy things they don’t need for the money they don’t have is not a life mission.

Locked Up in the Cage of Projects

When a company is bootstrapped the founders can have in a way an easy attitude to their operation. Connecting with investors changes that. Often it can be a very constructive relationship but it involves creating a special way of communicating. We start playing certain roles. The founders, usually young people, don’t realize that creating stories—partly for the investors, partly for the press, partly for themselves—they create around themselves a layer of identity, which is not always true and certainly not complete. The mythologization which follows closes us in a kind of cage, limits us; we become prisoners to the part of our identity we created. I know many people that locked themselves into the cages they had made.

On Start-ups

Most Start-ups Fail

Among start-up founders there are many young people, this is characteristic of IT industry. Young people are experts on new technologies, they can code, they follow trends, are not afraid of risk, and can afford long periods of unsalaried work. Usually they also have some kind of vision and/or mission and take up the challenge to build and maintain a team.

So we talk about a good “founder material,” someone who needs to be courageous and original enough to choose a less traveled path. Especially, that at the beginning they have to face huge lack of support. Sometimes we make great plans, which might not be feasible. We sell our vision, which, according to many, cannot come true.

There is a whole question of stress in the start-up industry. Until recently the episodes of depression or even suicides in the start-up world were not talked about. Maybe there was not sufficient data. Recently TechCruch writes more and more about this problem.

A kind of ideology emerged around the star-ups, which suggests that creating start-ups “we change the world for the better.” It is a strange ideology. Especially, given that the number of companies that are successful or those that do something good for humanity oscillates is close to a standard error—the majority of companies never succeed. Not to mention that from all the masses of beginning start-ups only 510 percent manage to survive on the market. Most people feed their dreams reading about virtual or real successes of others.

What Does Matter for Us and What Are Our Priorities?

It is important to know why we are doing this. From the mathematical standpoint it is better to find a good job in a corporation because “entrepreneurship” is not a sure way to make money. After calculating what percent of star-ups can reach high value it is best to join one after it got financing in round A or B and work for already reasonable pay and for shares that might be worth something. As entrepreneurs we usually pay ourselves very little in the first years. Eventually it might turn out that it doesn’t work. That’s why it is so important to ask ourselves these questions: Why am I doing this? What are my priorities? Our time is precious.

Creating Something of Your Own

For people who value freedom, have a concrete vision to realize, and feel ill at ease in the corporate world working for start-ups is a good solution. Maybe I should not comment on that since I’ve never worked for a corporation. I don’t know this world. I had three co-founders—two men and one woman and together we built a team where we were all equals and had the same powers. But it was a small company. So let’s leave corporations aside. I like to create new things. Jus founding an organization is already creative act for me. I also like to be in control so my own business is perfect for me! 🙂

Mindfulness in Organizations

Leadership is built mostly through hard work, communication with the team and—in longer perspective—making good business decisions. A leader can perform many roles and does not have to stop being a ­colleague in a team.

Often you think of IT professionals as people who are very analytical, who need to be addressed in a short, concise way. This is not true. ­Managing intelligent people you need to use more empathy since when team members share common understanding the communication is smooth. I recommend the book Mindfulness In Organizations. Mindfulness for me is an intriguing way of living and approaching life.

Timing

In the start-up founding team people and culture are the most important elements. Still, for success the most important factor is timing, the moment we enter the market. A lot depends on us, but at the same time just as much is out of our control. Over 90 percent of star-ups fail not because the teams were not smart enough but because they entered the market at the wrong time. Sometimes an idea is excellent, but it catches on two years later.

When We Fail

Silicon Valley is forgiving toward failure. Here people take on enormous challenges, which involve even greater risks. On the surface it seems easier, but still many people cannot handle failure—they go into an emotional slump. Some leave for few months to regenerate. I have been there. But then they come back stronger.

I don’t know if it is possible to avoid failure. When we disbanded ­Credictive I felt we closed an unfinished project. It was very hard on me. We were solvent but even so we decided to close the company. We finished our operation not because it was not possible to go on, but because we did not want to go on. I asked myself many times if it was the right decision. I still think it was. But it was hard.

The first failure is probably the hardest. Ending Credictive was my first failure. I shall see how it goes and how I will deal with the next one. Statistically there are a few more “fails” ahead.

When Things Fall Apart

When we do something that requires full commitment from us we tell ourselves that our work is worth our dedication and time. We get very emotionally involved. I, for that matter, take what I do very personally. I can’t keep my distance without losing interest at the same time. That’s why it is so important to work out a system of dealing with failure. I was greatly helped by When Things Fall Apart, a book by Pemy Chodron. The book explains the Buddhist perspective of dealing with change. When we build a part of our personality over something very important to us and later that part no longer exists we feel lost. I personally experienced a hard lesson and the “rebuilding” from scratch when at one moment many aspects of my life changed. When many variables of our identity transform all at once we have to learn to build ourselves anew.

Silicon Valley Take Two

Life Decision

Many people come to Silicon Valley hoping for success. But Silicon Valley is a tough place to make it. Living here you might get an impression that everybody is happy to talk to you, but those conversations might not lead anywhere. The competition is just very strong.

When I moved to Silicon Valley for the second time in May 2015, I had already been here a number of times. It seems to me that anyone who plans to move to Silicon Valley should first visit it several times. This is why Innovation Nest fund brings founders here before they are ready to make the move. Some never decide to live in Silicon Valley. It is a tough life decision, affecting the rest of our career. Before moving here for good you should ask yourself why do it, what is so special about it? Although I’ve spent over nine years in technology, until recently I saw no point in moving to Silicon Valley.

Make Your Own Space

I am happy to be back. My stay in Silicon Valley is connected to my new career plans and does not involve a crazy pace. I am very busy but it’s the first time I’ve been in the Valley for a longer time and I don’t feel constantly under pressure. I am confident that my life goal and my professional goals are more coherent. My decision was preceded by years of experience when I learned how to manage my own psyche and run my business as an entrepreneur and—more importantly—how not to run it. To be able to function in Silicon Valley at ease you have to create your own space.

We Need a Definition for Creating Extraordinary Things

Many people while thinking of start-ups imagine nice offices, promo t-shirts, and free pizza. In reality a start-up is a test of a business model, a way of organizing work. Usually the job is exciting but stressful. Especially when we decide to move to Silicon Valley or generally to the United States. We start alone, without friends or family. It is a huge cost. You might think about why you do it.

Should people test themselves to create extraordinary things? I think so. However, we need a definition of what “creating extraordinary things” really means.

Some Specific Ideas, Definitions, Schemes

Many people come to Silicon Valley to get financing; this is kind of “financial tourism.” Yet before we come here for money it is worth coming to one or two conferences to learn the local art of conversation. What’s surprising in Silicon Valley is that everyone seems to know the financial jargon of fundraising. Taxi drivers and yoga teachers have no problem saying company X has valuation Y, raises on SAFEs, without Cap, at a discount. It is incredible!

It is actually not difficult to learn those terms. All it takes is reading a few books or some blogs. But if you come here without knowing them you might feel less competent. It is not true; of course, it is just a question of learning a few specific ideas, definitions, and schemes.

Crowd Thinking

The Valley is a place inhabited by wise, progressively thinking people who constantly question status quo and create new realities. On the other hand it is a closed “ecosystem,” which means that many people have similar ideas on various subjects.

So in contradiction to the prevalent idea about the originality of this place you might easily fall prey to crowd thinking and start thinking exactly the same as everybody else. A part of tech environment and the local press lives on stereotypes and truisms that appear and become fashionable until a new trend comes up—something that before was unthinkable—and changes the paradigm. So it is worth knowing what everybody is thinking at a given time and ask if we think the same, and why. Recently Elon Musk introduced a new trend in the Valley—“thinking from the ground up,” meaning questioning absolutely everything. I think it is good.

Technology with Capital “T”

There are start-ups that stand out on the sole merit of their technology. But it has to be technology with capital “T.” Companies who just make another app and who want to make it big in the Valley, need to build a large network of contacts or have great sales people and an original sales strategy. So in this sense they resemble classical companies. Thus why is it worthwhile to be in the Valley? For sure if we have groundbreaking technology, something deserving a patent. The Valley is one of the few places in the world where it is easier to commercialize innovation. You should consider coming to the Valley if your technology is targeted at programmers or designers. If your target client is advertising, fashion, financial sector, or real estate the best place to operate is New York.

Therefore there is no clear answer if and when one should come to Silicon Valley. That depends on many factors. Sometimes it is not worth leaving where you are—some businesses can be built from any place on the globe.

Plans for the Future

Mature Questions…

Until recently I had no specific plans for the future. What I have done so far went like this: We are a group of friends, we work together, it’s cool. And it was cool, up to a point. Now I understand better what I want to achieve. Maybe because I ask myself more mature and harder questions.

Positive Social Impact

At present I am building an investment fund based on positive social impact principle: so for the start-ups and tech companies that create positive changes in our world. Social good tech companies that interest me have a chance to enjoy great commercial success and, as a result, even more positively influence the environment. Although I believe in nonprofit organizations our fund focuses on for-profit companies. We want to prove that it is possible that you can have excellent return on investment, investing only in companies established to make something good in the world and not just make money. A good example of social good tech company is Tesla producing electric cars, which is good for the environment. In my opinion positive impact companies represent a new trend. Research shows that companies with such profile find it easier to employ the best workers, have easer time creating positive PR as journalists like to write about companies, which change the world for the better.

At the same time I am running a San Francisco based entrepreneur community impact.tech. I feel I have found my niche. My friends ­support me greatly. I am glad I am in my element.

How Can We Help Humanity?

Seth and I have been running Fifty Years together. We want to prove something, answer the question how we can really help humanity. It is not an easy task, we have a lot of work and the answers we’ll be probably collecting over the next 50 years!

The role of investor is not limited to just financing. At Innovation Nest I learned how to work with entrepreneurs. Investors can be helpful also with their network of contacts and experience—they give advice on how entrepreneurs should best manage their time and be most effective. How to help entrepreneurs is a very interesting question for me. At present we have eight companies in our portfolio. They are all very impressive and deal with a variety of problems.

Supporting Socially Responsible Companies

Fifty Years fund is a long-haul adventure. I think I could work there till the end of my life. It’s a long distance mission. The fund is still small. We plan about 30 investments. The goal is to prove that our investment idea works and we can get excellent return on this kind of investment. In the next years we want to use significant funds to support socially responsible start-ups as well as the companies that want to make a better world by commercializing scientific discoveries and educating about the advantages of new technologies.

“Fifty Years Hence”

Establishing the fund we were inspired by Winston Churchill’s 1931 speech “Fifty Years Hence,” in which he predicted, among other things, artificial intelligence. He talked about it before the creation of Enigma and Alan Turing’s research.

As late as in the 1970s and 1980s many software engineers did not believe that artificial intelligence would be created which shows even more how visionary Churchill’s address was.

Churchill also predicted creating protein in vitro. I am a vegan and I am very interested in ways to create animal protein outside a living organism. We’ve recently invested in a company that deals with exactly that.

Women in IT

Women in Silicon Valley?

It is a cliché, but career path for women is harder. Young women have to be careful as by accident they might end up as a “nice add-on” to a business: We’ll invite you to a panel, to a conference, to dinner. It’s just that those “invitations” don’t lead anywhere. Many women coming to Silicon Valley do not realize they do not get equal treatment with men. Especially so, if we consider the business and technological competence. My self-­esteem is strong enough so I don’t take particular interest in what people think about me. Fortunately I have skills and experience that is impressive even in Silicon Valley. With my story I proved something. Yet before you prove that something it’s relatively tough. It’s not just male discrimination. Women also discriminate against women. Men who are starting up probably do not need to prove that much to others! Women in business have to give more. It will eventually change when the proportions get even.

Positive Reality Filter

I have a positive reality filter—if something did not work out today, it will work tomorrow. Maybe it is a filter that stops me from getting a realistic view of the world. Maybe that because of my gender I had come across many closed doors. I don’t know that. I don’t think something didn’t work because I am a woman. I tend to think what to do better as an entrepreneur, investor, salesperson. If something doesn’t work out I ask myself how I can find a different solution. Men also need to fight for their own! There are, by the way, many levels of discrimination, not just the gender ones. Being a “white European” I already am quite privileged in my life.

“Get Lost”

There are still many “old school” institutions and VC funds. When a young woman appears at a meeting like that, a male-female context occurs where competence is of no or little importance. I managed to survive this phenomenon. I never went to any “dinners.” But you have to notice certain things, think and draw conclusions: Aha, a dinner meeting has a different character than lunch or breakfast. Sometimes the other party doesn’t have any ill intentions. I don’t have a simple advice about how to act in such unclear situations. When someone writes to me “let’s meet for a drink” I respond that on principle I never meet after work. I can meet for breakfast or lunch. The message is simple: “Get lost!” You can create your own circle and go your own way without worrying if someone is now calculating your “chromosome configuration.”

Ellen Pao

There has been a lot of commotion regarding Ellen Pao. Smarter men avoid ambiguous situations and subtexts. Still, some women decided to speak publicly of what’s been going on. They showed great courage. They sacrificed a part of their lives and had to expose their privacy. Thanks to women like Ellen Pao we now know more about the problems of male-­female relations at work. More women speak openly of bro culture, sexism, of what goes on at conferences, of pretty hostesses employed as “decorations.” Talking about it creates certain norms.

I have a feeling the situation is slowly changing.

Bro Culture

Working in IT industry women often need to downplay their femininity. I have an impression that in Silicon Valley there are no dresses. It’s just such dress code, and that’s it. Myself, I never switched to jeans and t-shirts and I do wear dresses but I know women who changed. Tech women have a male lifestyle. I try to fight it but I still get surprised when I see someone with full make-up on. “A theoretical physicist doesn’t wear dresses?” Oh, those stereotypes!

Pattern Recognition

The percentage of women taking technology courses is much smaller than men. Work in tech is hard. Regardless whether you are a programmer or not you have to know how to deal with tech co-founders and tech workers. Large start-ups carry large risks and women sometimes don’t want to take that risk. I also know that in theory women have more trouble getting financing.

The work of an investor consists in “pattern recognition” and historically the most successes and “exits” in tech have been achieved by men. That’s why investors more often invest in men. It is caused by selection bias. This tendency is slowly changing. Many investors try to invest in women to have diverse, male-female teams. A mixed team portfolio looks better and there is also research showing that the presence of women in management positions correlates with success.

There is a growing number of Silicon Valley start-ups that were co-founded by women. At present it is around 25 percent. In Europe, including Poland, the percentage is much lower. In comparison, in ­Brooklyn start-ups co-founded by women comprise around 40 ­percent of companies in that area. This is an amazing number but it is connected to the specific of the industry. In New York fashion industry is very developed and, as elsewhere in the world, many women are professionally involved in fashion tech.

Is it Harder for Women to Work in IT Environment?

I think so, but personally I have not experienced this. But my sister Basia who is a programmer and sociologist and deals with gender issues would have confirmed. I know there is a strong “male element” to my way of thinking. I tend not to identify myself just through my gender. This is why I don’t feel gender discrimination even working in male environment.

Still, I think women have it harder. At the “Youth in Leadership” conference where I presented a paper many women asked me how I managed to break through the barriers, overcome the “glass ceiling,” and become successful in a male world. They all said that working for corporations can be very hard and sexist comments are common.

Our Success or a Team Success?

Women often undervalue themselves and are not able to tell themselves I did it! I achieved it! They don’t acknowledge their success. That’s why they don’t talk about it. Research shows that women more often attribute success to the whole team while men have a tendency to take personal credit for the team’s work.

Judging by this example—everything that I achieved before was the effect of the work of a fantastic group of people. I always stress that. The whole team was responsible for our successes. Such results cannot be obtained by one person. Now, when I begin to walk alone I feel an enormous burden on my shoulders.

Meetups for Women

These meetings are important. Women want to share their observations, their history. Sheryl Sandberg in Learn In…1 stresses how important it is to have role models. Meetups for women are called to show that among us there are women who are successful. Such events help us focus on the goal: since this person did it, there is a chance I can do it too. There are also many support groups in which participants share their experiences. Such activities stop further exclusion of women. That’s why I think that in today’s world and at the present stage of evolution women’s organizations are necessary. And if women want to meet, they should!

Ending on a Personal Note

The Biggest Success

Hard to say.

I’ve always been proud of Applicake team and from the work culture that we managed to create. That was something very special for me and it still matters a lot to me.

When I think of what I’ll be doing for the next few years I feel proud of the path I have chosen. Although I cannot yet justify this pride with any concrete achievements as we are just starting, but even if we are not successful I feel I am participating in something important.

Milestone

Milestones. Founding Applicake, decision to get involved in Base CRM, Y Combinator, Innovation Nest, Fifty Years.

I hope Fifty Years is my next one…

Sprinter or Marathon Runner?

In my life I follow the advice I got from my parents, particularly one simple principle that I recommend to all: “Treat people like you would like to be treated.”

While the best business advice I ever got came probably from my friend Jerry Colonna—a mentor of many entrepreneurs and investors. He told me: “You need to know if you are a sprinter or a marathon runner.” It means anyone of us can be successful. Some people will do great in the sprint category—they will build start-ups and for them it will be the right work environment. Other people are marathon runners who slowly build certain value and on that fundament they keep creating further.

And life is generally more like a marathon which means you don’t have to optimize of what you want to do next year but rather you should think what you want to do for the rest of your life, trying not to get burned out on the way.

That was a good piece of advice for me. I am a marathon runner.

Leisure Time…

I dance, go to yoga, run. On weekends I try to take my mind off work.

I meditate. I recommend Headspace app. Fifteen minutes a day is enough and indeed you can train your brain to release control.

One thing I miss in San Francisco is art.

***

The interview took place on July 29, 2015 in San Francisco. Updated January 29, 2016.


1 Sheryl Sandberg, Learn in: Women, Work and the Way to Learn.